We accept as common knowledge that there is a growing sense of disunity, even division, among American Christians. Some groups feel ostracized, oppressed, orphaned. Others feel misrepresented and villainized. How are we to address this discontinuity and tension? How can we move toward healing a broken world? Sho Baraka seeks to answer these questions in his book He Saw that it was Good: Reimagining Your Creative Life to Repair a Broken World.
As the title indicates, Baraka’s solution is centered on story telling through artistic expression. However, it extends beyond art to any form of creating from designing computer software to raising rowdy kids. As Baraka says, “[t]his book is about many things. But at the core it’s about how the stories we live shape the world around us. How we can use our creativity to bring gold or shadow into reality” (5). Central to his solution is honesty. “All told, I think this is a book about honesty” (xxviii). The book is Baraka’s demonstration and explanation of how his amalgamation of stories, creativity, and honesty can “repair a broken world.”
Chapter one and two offer a framework and foundation for the following chapters. In chapter one, Baraka explains and illustrates how we are shaped by the stories we live in, hear, and record. He is adamant we understand this power of stories. For, “we are participating in the creation of a narrative” (9)—a narrative we weave into our daily work. Thus work, Baraka argues (chap. 2), serves a significant purpose. “We are made to work, not for mindless profit—but for the benefit of the good world” (28). To benefit the world, we must begin by knowing and telling our stories accurately.
In chapters three and four, Baraka unpacks how the stories we tell and believe impact our work, life, and theology. As his book is also about addressing racial issues, Baraka’s illustrations center around the Black community. He illustrates how Black theology and churches have grown and adapted from mucky plantation soil. He argues that “in the pressure, injustice, and profound beauty of this journey from the plantation, we see the incredible promise of people who are reclaiming their God-given calling (against all odds) and slowly reimagining life in a broken world” (70). His point is that our past shapes our present work. Additionally, as we preserve our past through storytelling, the storytellers are as influential as the story itself. Therefore, Baraka argues that it is crucial we hear from both the mighty and the marginalized. He writes, “we need not only a theology of the poor but also a theology by the poor” (93). This knowledge naturally leads to action.
Chapters five and six are Baraka’s call to action. After a scathing portrayal of the White Evangelical world, he urges an Exodus from it. In the palaces of Pharaoh, it is impossible for the marginalized (like himself) to tell truthful stories. He argues that “if we want to see change and the honest expression of our creative work, we must give the best we have and seek a structure that will allow our best to flourish” (121). For, the stories we tell determine tomorrow’s reality. If we want our stories to transform the world in a God-glorifying way, they must be honest (even if it requires that we use crass or questionable language (132)). While such a task sounds daunting, Baraka ends the book with seven straightforward suggestions for how we can “feel the real presence of God while we serve others” (163). These seven suggestions are: reject idols, work with and for others, honor diversity, repent and repair, practice contentment, seek rest, and pursue excellence. They act also as a gentle balm to those battered by the body of the book.
Those who are “white evangelicals,” may feel bullied and villainized (and perhaps justifiably so) after reading this book. They may understand the horrors of chattel slavery. They can probably also get behind the need to live and work truthfully. Just as they may see that the stories we tell shape us, our families, our churches, our world. However, Baraka’s broad-brush strokes paint an entire demographic as slave masters. Let me explain. He likens White Evangelicals to Egypt, or Pharoah. Blacks, he says, can live and work in Whites Evangelical’s palaces—but not as free men. They are gagged, unable to speak what they see (112-113). Therefore, they are essentially forced by their White Evangelical brothers and sisters to live in exile. If this is true, those in the White Evangelical world surely deserve his severe reprimand. If it is not, that is a heavy charge to lay at the feet of every White Evangelical. It is also a confusing charge, as Baraka also says that “we [Christians] are all exiles” (106).
Perhaps he could have avoided unnecessary insults by clarifying his terms and audience. It is unclear if the “we” he refers to throughout the book are Black Evangelicals, Black Christians or Black and White Christians. Who is his desired audience? The result is confusion in application. (For example, is he calling Whites and Blacks alike to Exodus from a corrupt White Evangelical church, or just Blacks?)
However, though Baraka’s persuasiveness suffers from a lack of clarity, I cannot entirely discard his argument for separating from the Evangelical world. Baraka is zealous that one group of people not have a monopoly on knowledge and the arts (91-92). Therefore, he argues that we need to give voice to the marginalized (96). I agree that we would do well to learn from a wide variety of people, not exclusively Western men from the perspective of White Evangelicals. While perhaps he overemphasizes the marginalized, I understand his concern.
Perhaps the most disturbing piece of Baraka’s book, though, is how it apparently minimizes the gospel. Yes, he mentions the gospel as transformative. Yes, he acknowledges that Jesus died for us. However, we, not Jesus, are the transformers and shapers of culture. Throughout the book he argues that we have power to write and tell stories that transform entire cultures. We are the impetus for change in the world. Therefore, in Baraka’s mind it is imperative that we “fully live into our creative calling . . . and find transcending principles that will help mature our creative life” (xxiv). Just as it is imperative that we “repent and repair the damage” of our contributions that are not what they should be (169). While I acknowledge that God uses our words and work to accomplish His purposes, they are both under His sovereign command. The burden of redeeming and repairing this world does not lie on our shoulders, Jesus already shouldered that burden at the cross. Knowing this does not stimy our creativity but frees us to create out of gratitude, not fear. When we fail to acknowledge this, we will—as Baraka unfortunately does—become unbalanced. We will focus too much on revamping systems and not enough on personal sanctification (170).
That said, perhaps Baraka did not mean to convey the idea that we are autonomous creators. Perhaps he simply wanted to ensure that his readers saw the importance of seeking the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7). Or he wanted us not to live for ourselves but to bless others. Whatever his intention, the clarity of Baraka’s message again suffers from lack of precise terminology. Given these primary objections to Baraka’s book, I cannot recommend it in toto. However, parts are surely worth mulling over. We do need to acknowledge the power of stories. We would do well to consider soberly and seriously what stories we are telling ourselves and others. We should, as Christians, tell truthful stories in a winsome and potent way. If we remain silent, the world’s stories will continue to dominate our imaginations and shape our thinking. Baraka’s book is a clarion call to all Christians to speak up and speak boldly. Surely all of us can benefit from heeding such a call.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.
Which, Baraka argues was, for Black Americans, one of oppression and injustice. The result was concern for social issues.
Though some readers may disagree with me, Baraka’s classifying of entire demographics into power structures pitted against each other smells of Critical Race Theory thinking (see page 96-98). However, perhaps he just needs to use clearer and more precise vocabulary.